Louisville-Notre Dame showdown highlights early conference schedule

As the conference season opens, we don't have to wait long for one of the most enticing games: Asia Durr and No. 3 Louisville (12-0) face second-ranked Notre Dame on Jan. 10. AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley

Christmas is over, and before you have time to break in -- or break -- any of your new gifts, conference play begins. Let's look at the Power 5 conferences in women's college basketball as we get ready to launch into 2019.

ACC: Huge showdown coming soon

The most anticipated ACC game is on the way: Third-ranked Louisville at No. 2 Notre Dame on Jan. 10 (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET). A lot could be riding on that outcome -- including NCAA tournament seeding -- and there aren't many good vibes between these teams. Last season at the ACC tournament final, Louisville coach Jeff Walz opted to use the postgame handshake to complain to Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw about her remarks on ACC player of the year.

He was upset that McGraw didn't use winner Asia Durr's name when saying she thought her own player, Arike Ogunbowale, deserved the honor. Alas, Notre Dame and Ogunbowale had a larger prize in store at the Final Four. Currently, senior guards Ogunbowale (23.1 PPG) and Durr (22.5) are 1-2 in scoring in the ACC.

The defending national champion Irish didn't win their biggest test thus far this season, falling 89-71 to UConn on Dec. 2. That defeat, though, might have been a kick in the pants the 11-1 Irish needed. McGraw, incidentally, is just one victory away from 900 in her career; that should come Sunday versus Lehigh, where she started her head coaching career in 1982.

Louisville, the defending ACC champ, is 12-0; the Cardinals have faced two ranked teams and beaten them by a combined seven points. They still have a nonconference matchup with UConn on Jan. 31.

No. 9 N.C. State is also 12-0 and building on last year's Sweet 16 appearance, led by strong guard play. Virginia Tech is 12-0, too, and we'll see just how good the Hokies are quickly; four of their first five ACC games are against ranked teams.

No. 15 Syracuse and No. 24 Miami are both 11-2, while Florida State is 11-1. The Seminoles might be the most pleasant surprise so far in the ACC, considering they lost their entire starting five from a season ago.

Transfers are so prevalent now, it's challenging to keep track of them all. That said, three transfers are making an impact in their first season: Florida State's Kiah Gillespie (formerly of Maryland) is averaging 17.5 PPG and 9.0 RPG, Miami's Beatrice Mompremiere (Baylor) is at 15.3 PPG and 11.5 RPG and NC State's Grace Hunter (Charlotte) is at 15.1 PPG.

Big Ten: Terps and Gophers leading the way

No. 4 Maryland and No. 12 Minnesota are both 11-0. They don't play each other until Feb. 21 in College Park, Maryland. Minnesota's strength of schedule is 193; Maryland's is 243; both have faced just one ranked team.

The Gophers have been a great story thus far under first-year coach Lindsay Whalen, the Minnesota alum and former Lynx star in the WNBA. Senior Kenisha Bell leads the Gophers in scoring (19.5 PPG) and is third in the league. Junior Taiye Bello leads the Big Ten in rebounding (13.4).

Maryland has four players averaging in double-figures scoring, including freshman Shakira Austin, who is averaging a double-double (10.6 PPG, 11.9 RPG). Junior Kaila Charles (15.7 PPG) leads the way offensively, and the Terps have only one senior among their top seven players.

Iowa, though, is the team with the best RPI (11) and second-best strength of schedule (24). Hawkeyes senior forward Megan Gustafson is the league's individual star. She has made the Big Ten player of the week award her own personal property, winning it six times already this season, and 16 times overall in her career. Gustafson leads Division I women's basketball in scoring (26.5 PPG) and field goal percentage (74.7), and is tied for first in double-doubles (10).

Along with the Terrapins, Gophers and Hawkeyes, No. 21 Michigan State is the Big Ten's other ranked team. The Spartans have the signature nonconference victory, too, having beaten then-No. 3 Oregon on Dec. 9. Michigan State hosts Iowa in a key early conference game Sunday (ESPN2, 1 p.m. ET).

Big 12: How much better will Baylor get?

Oklahoma, at 4-7, has the league's worst record. Yet the Sooners played one of the Big 12's best games on Dec. 19, pushing No. 1 UConn until the final minutes of a 72-63 loss in which Oklahoma had led by as much as 12 in the second half. An explanation: The Sooners are a really young: seven freshmen and three sophomores, a team with a lot of growth potential.

But how much will No. 7 Baylor, the Big 12's top team, grow? To get back to the Final Four for the first time since 2012, the Lady Bears must get a little better, and they know that. Baylor is more of a veteran team, led by senior center Kalani Brown (15.0 PPG, 6.9 RPG). The Lady Bears lost at then-No. 11 Stanford 68-63 on Dec. 15, but an even bigger test is coming, as Baylor hosts UConn on Jan. 3 (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET). That will be a chance to see two premiere freshmen: Huskies guard Christyn Williams (13.8 PPG, 3.8 RPG) and Lady Bears forward NaLyssa Smith (12.1 PPG, 7.3 RPG).

Kansas (9-1) is the opposite of Oklahoma, with seven seniors and three juniors. Senior guard Jessica Washington (16.3 PPG) began her career in 2013 at North Carolina. She sat out 2015-16 as a transfer and 2017-18 with an ACL injury. She'd love to see her journey end with Kansas' first NCAA tournament appearance since 2013.

TCU is also 9-1 and hopes to return to the Big Dance for the first time since 2010. Iowa State missed the NCAA tournament last year for just the second time since 2007. The Cyclones are 9-2 and lead the league in RPI, at No. 8. Texas, also 9-2, has been hurt by graduation and injury at the guard spot, but the Longhorns are still ranked No. 13 in the AP poll.

Pac-12: Ducks and Cardinal atop strong group

The league has five ranked teams, including three in the top 11. None of the ranked teams are undefeated though; Utah (11-0) is the only Pac-12 team that is unbeaten. What that says is the league's best teams have played some challenging foes, which will help prepare them for the grind through Pac-12 play.

No. 5 Oregon is 11-1 and No. 6 Stanford 9-1. Their losses were on the road to good teams: Michigan State for the Ducks and Gonzaga for the Cardinal. Oregon and Stanford are 3-4 in RPI and both are in the top 20 in strength of schedule. The Ducks and the Cardinal won't meet until Feb. 10 at Stanford.

Oregon guard Sabrina Ionescu was the espnW preseason player of the year pick, and she remains the front-runner as the nation's best. With four this season, she now has 14 career triple-doubles, an NCAA record for women or men, with averages of 20.0 points, 8.3 rebounds and a Division I-leading 8.8 assists. Fellow junior Ruthy Hebard is second in the country in field goal percentage (74.1), while averaging 16.8 PPG, and Satou Sabally, last season's Pac-12 freshman of the year, is at 17.1 PPG.

Alanna Smith (19.4 PPG, 6.7 RPG) leads Stanford, and its victories over Baylor and Tennessee were a great bounce-back from the Cardinal's loss to Gonzaga. Another senior post player in the Bay Area, No. 14 Cal's Kristine Anigwe, is having her best season yet, averaging 22.2 PPG and a league-best 13.7 RPG (second in Division I). Anigwe is tied for first nationally in double-doubles with 10.

No. 11 Oregon State and No. 17 Arizona State are the Pac-12's other ranked teams, and both are 9-2. The Sun Devils' losses were to top-10 teams Baylor and Louisville, while the Beavers fell to then-No. 1 Notre Dame and Texas A&M.

Arizona, Colorado and USC are all 10-1. But as is the case with the unbeaten Utes, we won't have a really good read on any of them until seeing how they fare in league play.

SEC: Mississippi State tries to hold onto top spot

Like the Big 12, the SEC has no unbeaten teams. The SEC is sixth in league RPI behind the ACC, Pac-12, Big East, Big Ten and Big 12. That said, the SEC still has two teams in the AP's top 10: No. 8 Mississippi State and No. 10 Tennessee. Each has one loss; the Bulldogs fell at Oregon, while the Lady Vols lost at home to Stanford.

Mississippi State, the 2018 SEC regular-season champ, was the preseason pick to win the conference again, after national runner-up finishes the past two years. The Bulldogs' best victories are over Texas and Marquette, and they're second only to Oregon in points per game at 91.7. Seniors Teaira McCowan (17.0 PPG, 12.7 RPG) and Anriel Howard (16.1. 8.3) are, as expected, the toughest interior duo in the league to stop.

Sophomores Evina Westbrook (16.4 PPG, 5.7 APG) and Rennia Davis (13.8 PPG, 7.4 RPG) are sparkplugs for Tennessee, which still has a Jan. 24 nonconference matchup with Notre Dame.

No. 18 Kentucky is 12-1, with its lone loss to state rival Louisville. The Wildcats, led by freshman guard Rhyne Howard (18.5 PPG), have the league's second-best RPI at 18, behind Mississippi State at 12.

No. 23 Texas A&M, led by sophomore Chennedy Carter (league-best 21.0 PPG) has what's probably the SEC's signature win so far, over then-No. 8 Oregon State on Dec. 15.

South Carolina has hung onto an AP ranking -- the Gamecocks are No. 25 -- despite being 7-4. That's due in part to reputation, to the understanding that they're still adjusting to the loss of last season's national player of the year, A'ja Wilson, and because they've played a challenging schedule (three of the losses were to top-10 teams). And considering the monster recruiting class that South Carolina has coming in next season, no one is feeling sorry for the Gamecocks.

Two teams that were ranked in the preseason poll but have fallen out are 8-4 Georgia and 10-3 Missouri. Auburn is 11-1, but the Tigers get a tough SEC test right away, as they open Jan. 3 against Tennessee.